The Merry Barn: A retreat for readers and writers of all ages

Grand opening Saturday, June 29, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Wed, 06/26/2019 - 6:45am

Growing up, Stephanie Noyes McSherry loved visiting her grandparents’ farm in Connecticut. The barn was where the family gathered for celebrations and dances. Little did she know then, those memories and that barn that housed so many of her happy childhood memories would never escape her mind or imagination.

“I just loved that barn. When my grandparents died it had to be sold. I guess I’ve just always had a thing for barns,” McSherry said.

Twenty years ago, she was teaching fourth grade in Brookline and she loved it. But being the avid reader and writer she is, 11 years ago, McSherry decided to become a literacy coach and specialist. She has been a classroom teacher and literacy coach-specialist across New England; a literacy consultant for Tufts University’s Center for Applied Child Development; a teacher-in-residence in the University of New Hampshire’s Education Department; and a 2006 fellow of the National Writing Project at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.

And while she was busy accomplishing all of that, she still longed to make a dream come true: Starting writing camps for kids.

“Reading and learning with kids … there’s nothing better. And I dreamed I’d have a barn for it.”

In 2012, McSherry moved from Boston to Newcastle and in addition to her belongings, she carried that dream with her. As luck would have it, she found herself regularly driving past The Merry Barn on River Road in Edgecomb. The barn and the white house across from the street from it were owned by Joe and Lisa McSwain, who decided to sell both together, not separately.

“We already had a house. And then, Lisa and Joe decided to sell the properties separately – I just loved this barn and called Jonathan Tindal ( of The Merry Barn’s advisory board) right away, and wrote up my five-year business plan,” McSherry recalled.

Merry Barn became hers in November 2015. The original plan was to wait on the kids’ writing camps until daughter Hope graduated from high school.

“But last fall I decided not to wait any longer. It was time,” McSherry said. “This is like my second baby and renovating it has been the most incredible experience.”

The love “Merry” needed would require capable, creative, reliable hands, so McSherry hired Neal Groton of Boothbay as the general contractor. He  had done work for her family before.

“I told Neal for years that I’d call him some day to ask if he was ready. And when I did, he was! He understood my vision from the beginning and he finished ahead of schedule. Neal has been the most amazing force behind this construction.”

The team working with Groton on the project last December through this May were architect Dan Phelps of Damariscotta and David Haskell, Brandon and Wayne Northrup of Northrup Construction Plus of Jefferson.

McSherry designed the writing-presentation-workshop on the main floor, where the writing workshops, presentations and camps will be held. And a reading area is set up with tables and chairs and an area along the length of one wall with a shelf where laptops could be used.

There is also a smaller room off this main room, with a glass panel across the top of the wall facing the reading and kitchen area – Groton’s idea. The glass is from the front of the building under “Merry Barn.” Re-purposing that glass brings some of the historical elements of the barn into the future. McSherry said moldings and other period features have also been preserved.

Downstairs in the basement level is the children’s library, encompassing the entire lower floor. McSherry has set up a cozy reading area with a rug, bean bag chairs and big pillows. All of the books are categorized and in baskets. McSherry and Joanna Breen at Boothbay Harbor Memorial Library have been talking about doing some partnering, such as setting up a mobile book collection, for starters.

A new stairway to the upstairs was constructed. Improvements to the barn also included making it accessible to all and to that end there’s ramp access from the front of the barn. And, of course, the building had to be brought up to code.

McSherry was visited by Ruth Davison and her daughter Heather. When Ruth and her now late husband Howie owned The Merry Barn, it was known for square dancing. Howie was the caller. Ruth and Heather brought McSherry artifacts, including photos taken from the third floor looking down on the second. McSherry plans to make copies of the photos and hang them in the barn. McSherry envisions the third floor being used for everything from meditation to children’s music and dance recitals. She also plans to dedicate the floor  to the Davison family.

Recently, at a literacy workshop in Freeport, she met a woman who went to The Merry Barn during the Davison years. One of McSherry’s friends was running the event and asked her to talk about The Merry Barn. As soon as I said Merry Barn this woman shot up from her chair and exclaimed, ‘Oh!  I remember The Merry Barn, I used to dance there,’” said McSherry. “Everyone does it, they go into this nostalgia.”

Everywhere McSherry goes, she meets people with similar memories. And all of those memories are good ones – all about what they were doing and about the barn. And McSherry can relate. She’s been carrying the memories of a barn that played a supporting role in her life, too. But now McSherry has a barn of her own. She is living her dream.  And in July the writing camps for kids will begin.

“Literacy is a social activity. The act of writing is what is meaningful. I was always a voracious reader and loved to write and love reading and writing with kids … they are so honest. They aren’t afraid that they might be ‘putting the wrong thing down.’ You learn alongside them. Coach them. And help them find their voice.

“In addition to children’s writing camps it’s important to me to have professional development for teachers that is thought-provoking and relevant. Teachers need time to recharge and reflect on their practice. What better place to do that than here and outdoors?”

With McSherry writing the next chapter for the barn, its history comes full circle: The Charles G. Merry Family was a co-founder of Damariscotta’s Skidompha Public Library. The name Skidompha is an acronym composed of letters representing all of the founders. The Merry family couldn’t have foreseen how its support of books and learning would evolve into their former home becoming a center for the imaginations of youth and adults through reading, writing, and eventually performance.

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